In the City of Viking Gods, the best new ideas for business emerged … Moving forwards with the European Business Forum

October 1, 2019

This year’s European Business Forum ended in style. The lights went out.

The City of Odense, our host for the last three years, has been transformed in that short time. When we sat down in the City Hall, back in 2016, I worked with the city’s innovative mayor Anker Boye to develop a new “home” in Europe for the best ideas in business.

Thinkers50 had for many years been an interesting ranking of business academics, largely celebrated amongst themselves. It struggled to connect with real business audiences, lacking the platforms and process to turn ideas into action.

We changed that by creating a series of partnerships around the world. In China, for example, the leading electronics business formed a partnership to create a platform to spread the best new ideas across the nation, Thinkers50 China. And similarly elsewhere.

Europe’s Hub of Business Thinking

In Odense, the city named after that Viking god Odin, we agreed to build Thinkers50 Europe, a hub of business thinking, with an annual event, the European Business Forum. “The Davos of Business Thinking”, if you like.

For business, it would bring together the world’s best thought leaders, and the Europe’s top business leaders, to network, to share ideas, to shape a new agenda for European business.

For the City of Odense, in the heartland of Denmark, struggling after the decline of its shipbuilding industry, but now rising again Europe’s leading hub for robotics, it was an icon of progress.

This would not just be another event, but an active program to build the image of the city in the business world. It is a year round initiative, building a virtual community of business leaders who regularly learn about Odense, as well as the broader ideas in business.

For local businesses, with the help of sponsors like Nordea, it has become a source of education and acceleration for start-ups and entrepreneurs. For students it has given them free access to the world’s top thinkers, to inspire them in their studies and future careers.

Odense , with the support of Thinkers50 partnership, has become a place of progress, new ideas and innovations, and a great place to meet – on the minds and schedules of the world’s business people, with benefits to local investment and prosperity. As Hans Christian Andersen might have said, a great place to write the future story of business.

Odense, City of Gods

Three years later, we have made incredible progress. After 3 annual forums, we have brought most of the world’s top business thinkers to the small Danish town, created three highly inspiring and memorable events, with many of Europe’s leaders attending.

For the city, the objective was to establish Odense on the business map, a place leaders would recognise as innovative, and have a reason to come. Ultimately to bring their offices and investment too. We set a target of creating 10,000 jobs. Mission accomplished.

Indeed the new Facebook Datacenter, one of the largest in the world, has just been completed in the Danish town. The robotics sector has grown rapidly, with companies like Universal Robots, a leader in collaborative robotics, receiving new investment for growth. Adjacent sectors, such as cannabis innovation has also emerged.

The nearby SDU university is thriving academically, with specialist facilities including the world’s most innovative (and unusual) running track to test exoskeletons. And the town itself, the Main Street a building site throughout our time there is almost transformed into a smart city with new transport systems, a new hospital, and a leading hub of gaming and entertainment too.

The Best New Ideas for Business 

Over the last three years 65 of the world’s top business thinkers have visited Europe, including the world’s top guru, twice. Almost 1000 business leaders have also come to connect and be inspired.

In 2017 the European Business Forum focused on New Growth, rethinking the drivers of business progress, and measures of business success.  Michael Porter, the world’s top business guru was a star turn with his European Business Lecture on the new concept of “shared value”. Other great moments included New York’s Rita McGrath rethinking strategy, Canada’s Don Tapscott rethinking innovation, and INSEAD’s Erin Meyer rethinking culture. And Lars Rebien Sorensen, the world’s top ranked CEO, received a huge ovation, in a remarkable session with Marshall Goldsmith.

In 2018 the European Business Forum focused on sustainability, and the need for business to make better choices, that were good economically and for society. Canada’s Roger Martin, the newly ranked top thinker talked about new ways for business to win, Google’s European MD Matt Brittin raved about business as a force for good, and Maersk and Siemens chairman Jim Snabe launched his new concept of Dreams and Details. Whitney Johnson explored how to disrupt yourself, Chris Zook reimagined growth, and Martin Lindstrom made a welcome return to Denmark.

In 2019 the European Business Forum took its inspiration from Asia, learning from the radical growth of Asian businesses and how they think and act fundamentally differently. Alex Osterwalder, the world’s bestselling business author, of Business Model Canvas was back with a fabulous session on creating the Invincible Company, Anna Rosling channeled her father-in-law reminding us that the world is much better than we think, and Anil Gupta and Haiyan Wang brought fascinating new insights from India and China. It was a daring agenda, but also perhaps the most insightful, showing Europe’s business what the future could look like.

As a finale we had a quite incredible boxing match between  two of the world’s leading innovation gurus, Scott Anthony, the American from Singapore, and Howard Yu, the Chinese professor in Switzerland. They explored the future of innovation, how businesses could grow in new ways, and what it would take to lead. Both actually used Odense as a great example, of a city with purpose, rising for the future and letting go of its past, recognising that being a great place is more than a location, and about people and ideas.

At the end of their match, as the winner’s belt was being awarded, the lights went out. One of the building contractors building the smart transport system outside had got too excited.

Looking to the Future

Peter Rahbæk Juel is today’s mayor of the city. At the end of the 2019 forum we raised a glass to a job well done. He talked about his vision for the city, how great ideas can inspire people to do what they never thought possible. “It is phenomenal how Odense in such a short time has become famous across the business world, as a place to think about the future and also to create the future” he reflected.

The world keep moving at pace, with new ideas and priorities. We recognise that the forum needs to spread its wings further, to innovate again, to reach more people with more impact. Whilst the early founders of Thinkers50 have decided to retire to a quiet life of writing and ranking, the network and forum moves forwards. As does the city.

In 2020 we will be launching an exciting new program, including the European Business Forum 2020, building on its foundations and harnessing the power of ideas and networks.  As we thanked our hosts in this wonderful, beautiful city, we look to a bright future for Odense, and to the future of European business.